When my husband and I were trying to decide whether or not to have a second child, we found ourselves in an endless loop of questions we couldn’t answer.
“Wouldn’t our son be lonely as an only child?”
“We’re already so busy—how much more time would another baby take up?”
“Would we ever sleep again?”
Around and around we went, asking unanswerable questions and discussing hypothetical situations. Eventually, the limbo-like nature of our talks began to wear on me. I found myself googling “Should I have a second child?”, convinced there must be some trove of well-organized information on the internet that would help me emerge from my hazy tunnel of indecision.
Spoiler alert: There was not.
It turns out that there’s been shockingly little useful data on how the number of children you have impacts your time, marriage, career, and overall happiness—until now.
Lynn Berger’s new book, Second Thoughts: On Having and Being a Second Child, came about while she was considering having a second child. Like me, she found herself with lots of questions about how it would impact her and her family’s life. Unlike me, she chased down the answers from hundreds of dry, academic research studies and packaged them in a beautifully written book that also includes personal stories about her own experiences as a mother.
Here are some of the tidbits from Berger’s book that I found most fascinating.
How much time does a second baby really take?
As a new mom, I found that most of my hobbies and even some of my friendships fell by the wayside. When we began to consider having a second child, I felt overwhelmed trying to imagine how I would possibly have time to parent two kids as opposed to one. Imagine my relief when, in reading Berger’s book, I learned that caring for a second child doesn’t take that much more time than caring for only one, although our exhaustion may tell us otherwise.
It turns out that having a second child costs parents between six minutes and one extra hour per day. This number is low because the majority of the time, you’re caring for both kids at once, not “doubling” your time (though I was left wondering who these “six minutes a day” parents are and how I can learn their secrets).
… having a second child costs parents between six minutes and one extra hour per day.
Interestingly, the nature of the time spent also changed. Parents with two children spent much more time on “passive supervision” (e.g. watching your kids play while doing the dishes or scrolling through Instagram) than on interactive care. Berger surmises that this is because as children grow older, they play together instead of with a parent. I suspect it’s also because a parent’s divided attention forces the older child to play more independently once another baby comes along.
Of course, even if it’s only six minutes, that extra time must come from somewhere. The most commonly sacrificed activities end up being sleep and leisure, followed by work time. So, if you’ve found the bags under your eyes have grown exponentially with your second (or third!) child, you’re not alone.
What about my marriage?
With a toddler running wild in our house, it was definitely too late for my husband and I to consider whether we would have been happier together if we’d stayed childless. While there’s a lot of research telling us that parenting doesn’t make us happier, Berger looks specifically at the impact of second children on marriages. While she finds that the more children a couple has, the less satisfied the partners are with their marriage, she also notes that many of these studies disregard the joy and meaning that come from being a parent. And while joy and meaning may not translate to “happiness” exactly, they do provide a kind of deep satisfaction that’s unlike anything else I’ve experienced.
Is being an only child really that bad?
When deciding whether or not to have a second child, many parents (including me) reason that they don’t want their first child to be an only child, worrying they’ll turn out spoiled or self-important.
In reality, Berger says, there is no evidence to support the stereotype of the bratty, egocentric only child. The sole difference in only children is that they seem to have slightly higher self-esteem—which is a good thing since they have to struggle with the world’s prejudice against only children!
What about sibling rivalry?
I’ve always had a close relationship with my younger brother, so I assumed if I had two kids, they would automatically be friends. My husband, who fought bitterly with his sister when they were younger, reminded me this would not necessarily be the case.
I found it surprising to learn that children of parents who had painful or complicated relationships with their siblings actually get along better with each other than those of parents who had good relationships with their siblings. This happens because parents with good sibling relationships (like me) tend to assume things will work out fine between their kids and therefore don’t try as hard to make that a reality. On the other hand, parents who have vivid memories of a childhood full of sibling conflict (like my husband) tend to go to great lengths to foster good relationships between their kids.
… children of parents who had painful or complicated relationships with their siblings actually get along better with each other than those of parents who had good relationships with their siblings.
Second Thoughts came out after I’d already had my second child, but I felt validated while reading because of how much rang true with my experience. So far, I can report that, as the book predicts, I am indeed more tired with two kids than I was with only one. I also do spend a lot more time passively supervising while I multitask to get dinner ready. As for my happiness, it’s hard to say yet whether or not having another child has made me less happy or my marriage less satisfying. What I can say is that the joy I get from being a mom didn’t just double with my second child, it increased exponentially. And that alone is worth it.